This is Yariv Stav, the co-owner of The Picnic Basket, a fast casual restaurant that Yariv says “takes the tastes of my home and adapts it to New York”. Inspired by Yariv’s upbringing in Israel, every item on the menu at The Picnic Basket has a little bit of a Mediterranean twist on it, which Yariv says the New York market was looking for when he and his co-owner, David Vacnich, opened The Picnic Basket in 2009. Both Yariv and David saw the market shifting towards cleaner, more wholesome options as customers became more health conscious and focused on the ingredients going into their food. And they saw an opportunity to introduce the inherently healthy nature of Mediterranean food into New York’s food industry in an unassuming way- with sandwiches and salads. Fast forward 10 years, Yariv says their food has become so popular because it’s made to order right in front of the customer and because all of their ingredients are either made in-house or delivered fresh every day. They have no preservatives in their food and instead use Mediterranean flavors and spices to create high-quality cuisine. For Yariv, the extra work that they put into their food to create the unique and distinctive tastes that The Picnic Basket is known for is worth the effort; because their commitment freshness is what makes the difference.
Food wasn’t always Yariv’s passion. After serving in the army in Israel, he got really interested in interior design and decided to go back to school for three years to study it on a deeper level. When he finished his program, he worked in interior design and graphic design for ten years before deciding to go to culinary school in Israel. While he was working in design, Yariv had also started working with Bite NYC, a food business that a childhood friend had started and asked him to be a part of. The plan was always for Yariv to come to the U.S. and run the business with his friend but it continued getting delayed because of the other work that he was doing. However, after culinary school, Yariv says that he got lucky and the timing finally lined up for him to move to New York. He moved in 2005 and right away began managing Bite with his friend. It was while he was working at Bite that he was connected to David, his friend’s brother, and that he was inspired to open his own restaurant. He wanted to create a concept similar to Bite but make it more upscale with fresher ingredients. Working at Bite allowed him to realize what he would improve on at his own place and from his experience in the food industry, he believed he knew what customers in New York liked. It would be a different feel and a different taste from Bite and other sandwich places and opening a space in Midtown would attract the lunch crowd that Bite missed at it’s downtown location. Yariv approached David with the idea and with a menu already formed in his mind. He knew exactly the restaurant that he wanted to open and a few months later, they opened their first location in the Fashion District.
Yariv says that he grew up with two very different styles of cooking, both influenced by his grandmothers. One was Russian and one was Libyan and although both cooked a lot, he was heavily influenced by his Libyan grandmother’s food. It was the majority of the food that he grew up eating during his childhood so it was important to him to incorporate those pieces into the menu. Since Yariv had a clear idea of what he wanted the restaurant to be and what the New York crowd likes, he created the entire menu for The Picnic Basket, which he says he wrote down like a recipe book. And he focused the menu around sandwiches and salads because the “picnic sandwich” was their original source of inspiration. They wanted to create sandwiches that customers would feel like they or a loved one had made in their kitchen at home. That was handmade with love and consideration and the freshest ingredients, which led them to the name, The Picnic Basket, for their business. It also led to the design of their store, which they wanted to fill with picnic tables that unfortunately didn’t fit, but instead includes earthy hues of brown and green throughout and a wall that says “picnic” in a variety of languages to represent the ability of a picnic or a sandwich to transcend cultural differences. Now, as the business grows, Yariv says he’ll pull inspiration from other cuisines he tries or places he visits or is planning to visit. He likes to incorporate new flavors into the menu as much as possible but always keeps a focus on sourcing the freshest ingredients that the item requires to get the correct taste.
In addition to their focus on freshness, consistency is a key factor in the day to day operations at The Picnic Basket. Since their second location opened in 2010, Yariv says that he’s particularly hard on this because he wants a customer to be able to go into either location and have their items, especially the sandwiches, taste exactly the same. For Yariv, what’s most important is that the dressings on each sandwich are correct. He wants a customer to taste all of the ingredients in every bite so it matters how you put the dressing on and how much of the dressing you put on. The dressings are all about the taste and not having the correct amount can change the whole meal. Which is why all employees have to train at their flagship location so that Yariv and his team can teach them their system for putting the ingredients on a sandwich: dressing, vegetables, cheese, meat. The sandwich creation has to be done a certain way because it’s very important that the customer get the whole experience of their food, which can be thrown off if it’s made incorrectly. Yariv says that he can now sense if someone is a sandwich maker. When they come in to train, he has to watch how they hold the knife and cut the bread because the way they cut it shows him a lot. There’s a certain way that you cut the bread that you can do it in one slice and if you cut it the wrong way, you’re going slower. Since they’re making most of their orders between 12PM and 2PM when customers are on their lunch breaks, it’s important that the sandwiches are made well but also that they’re made quickly. Their food is made to order so when employees are making them on the spot, they have to be quick and efficient and even something as simple as the way they cut the bread can throw off their rhythm. However, he’s able to tell right away if someone has the skill and after they shadow an employee in the kitchen, they study the menu and then get asked questions on it. The goal is that when they’re fully trained, they can make any sandwich correctly from memory in just 45 seconds.
Yariv’s philosophy for running a business has changed a lot over the years. He says his opinion right now is different than it was three years ago because there are a lot of different factors that have changed recently, including taxes, minimum wage, rent and competition of other businesses opening. But his advice for those looking to get into the food industry is to understand every part of the market and treat it as an equation. Think of the concept that you want to create and ask yourself how many people you can serve in a day and work backwards from there. Go through all of your financial expenses (rent, salaries, etc), estimate your cost, estimate your revenue based on the customers you’re serving and what they’ll pay for your food and work up from there. Right now he admits that the conditions are the hardest he’s seen since he opened his business but he believes that passion, no matter what, has to be a key part of your business and your reason for opening it. In his experience, if you’re passionate about what you do and you have a good product, customers will come. For Yariv, customer satisfaction is the most rewarding part of the business and the most important. He says that they get all kinds of feedback, both positive and negative, and he reads and responds to 99% of it because they help him learn, especially the bad reviews. But as long as he continues to create high-quality products with the freshest ingredients that bring others joy, he’s happy.
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